Think of the first moment of your day. The world of your dreams fading as the real world rushes in. Yawning, stretching, slowly transitioning to waking life. You feel sluggish, but your mind is working fast as ever interpreting all that it senses around you and weaving it into a rich tapestry of sights, sounds, smells, vibrations and more. You experience this naturally without effort, unaware of the billions of cells working in harmony to produce it. Then you notice your thoughts arising as you start to contemplate your day. Where do these thoughts come from? Do you think of them, or do they arise on their own?
From the beginning, my posts have circled around the same question: who are we, really? What is the true story of the outside world and our place within it? We’ve started to answer these questions by sketching the outlines of a human that is always in motion, actively interpreting itself and the environment. To be human is to be always in the midst of self-creation, within the constraints of our outer world. The outcome of that activity is each of us, and we are each performing that activity.
That activity involves seeing ourselves in the way that we are. It’s not that we are a certain way first, and then we see it in ourselves. The way we see ourselves is what we are. As we’ve seen over the past few posts, the way we take ourselves to be has many layers. One: we always have the perspective of a living being with natural needs and desires. Two: we see ourselves as others see us (or, more accurately, how we think they do). Third: as we saw in the last post – we first see ourselves as independent without recognizing we can only do this because of other people. And we saw how the denial of our interdependence can explain the violent domination between people.
What is coming into focus is that we are always part of a system, within which we can act freely but without which we could not exist at all in the way that we do. So to know who we are is to understand both our true independence and true dependence. Our freedom and the interlocking constraints that make it possible. We have to unite these two contradictory sides into the full paradoxical unity that is human life.
Next time you take a walk past a tree, consider its shape. How did it grow? Of course on the one hand, it grew that way freely according to its own design. But it’s also true that it grew that way only because of gravity and the sun and all the other aspects of its environment supporting its growth. A tree in outer space is no longer a tree. To be a tree means to be within a certain system that supports it in the right way.
So it goes with us. What we are is the relationship between our freedom and the systems that support us: our independence and dependence. We can look at historical schools of thought as ways people have tried to work through that relationship. What they get right, and what they get wrong, each contributes to our understanding of ourselves. That they always fail in some way is to be expected – we are in the middle of a process of self-discovery that may never end. What’s important is to learn from our failures to form better understandings today that lead to fuller freedom in our lives and those to come.
For example, take the ancient schools of stoicism and skepticism. Stoicism says that our truth is that we are wholly independent, because we can think anything we want. We can think that anything that happens is good, so nothing in the outer world can determine how we feel. This does seem empowering at first. Someone hurts you? No problem, that’s what you want to happen. That feels like a win, because now they can’t actually hurt you if you don’t let them. Complete control over your feelings feels at first like freedom and a good way to assure your happiness.
This freedom comes with a huge caveat, however. You aren’t able to think anything you want, you are only free to think whatever happens is good. For example, you aren’t allowed to think, “Actually I don’t like this and I’m going to do something to change it,” because that would admit that you are a little dependent on the outer world. The freedom of Stoicism is a negative freedom, a freedom from the world to take refuge in thoughts. True freedom would allow you to be in the world in the way you want and to think of ways to change the world to make that happen.
Skepticism, perhaps recognizing this flaw, says that we are fully independent because things are only real if we think they are. We make things real in our thoughts, we are the authors of reality. We can deny the reality of whatever we choose and replace it with an alternate reality. What is good is whatever we want it to be, because there is no real “good” outside our minds. Skeptics forget that they need the world to exist first, before they can deny it’s real. What they think is real or not came first from the world and can only be tested for truth against that world, not in their minds.
We think as stoics and skeptics all the time. We are stoics when we see ourselves as fully in control of our feelings and deny the role the world plays. The same is true when we see others as fully responsible for their situation in life, despite what the world has done to them. We are skeptics when we selectively deny the truth of reality and replace it with our own version. Skepticism is what fuels the beliefs that COVID isn’t real, news is fake and that the climate isn’t changing in dangerous ways.
I’ve noticed both of these tendencies within me over the past two months as I’ve adjusted to a new reality. First I tried to let the world dictate to me what needed to be done, but I quickly became overwhelmed. Even as I was trying to help, I noticed myself getting triggered and treating others with less kindness than usual. So then I focused more on myself, thinking that I should create my own calm regardless of what was going on around me. But ignoring what needed to be done to focus on myself also didn’t feel good. Finally, I started to look at what needed to be done and how I could approach it in a fun and calm way. Only when I stopped denying and controlling so I could listen to myself and the world, and integrate the two, did things start to go more smoothly.
In the next post, we’ll look at philosophies that move beyond stoicism and skepticism to accept our place in the world, but still see it as something to be overcome. Most religions begin from this perspective. They accept that we are born into a body but see the work of our lives as overcoming our natural state to achieve union with a supernatural and eternal divine. Much more than stoicism and skepticism, this perspective still shapes how we think today, how we see ourselves and therefore who we are.
drawing by pius